In a long, dark, forgotten room a man pulls a box from a shelf of boxes and drops it heavily onto the floor. He has hung his jacket on the steel frame and sweat blooms beneath his arms. He crouches down, wincing, and begins to pull manilla folders one-by-one from the box, reading the title of each. Dust rises, billowing beneath the single light-bulb.
From behind the raised bonnet Miguel peered at the minister, waiting in the back seat, and tried to judge how best to break the news. The man's moustache, turned down into a permanent disappointed curve, obscured his real expression.
'It is the fan belt,' Miguel said, his voice cutting so deep into the silence of the desert that by the last word he had lowered it almost to a whisper.
The minister climbed out of the car, stretched his arms and looked around. The air was so clear the mountains looked like paintings. It was a bad place to break down, still miles to the main road but the walk back uphill to the observatory would be worse.
'What do you have to drink?'
'Only water minister.'
'All you drivers have something.'
Miguel retrieved the half bottle of vodka from the glove box and handed it over.
'Foreigners and their rules,' the minister said, taking a swig and handing the bottle back. 'Lecture us on how to survive our own desert.' He swiped the screen of his mobile phone but then put it back in his pocket when he saw it had no signal. 'Who are those women down there?'
He pointed and Miguel shielded his eyes to look. Away down the hillside two women were kneeling down and sifting through the rocks.
'Farmers,' he suggested.
The minister scoffed.
'Archaeologists.' Miguel smiled, certain he had the answer.
'They have a truck,' the minister said. 'Maybe they can help.'
The two of them walked down the slope, loose scree spilling ahead of their feet, red dust scuffing polished black shoes and coating the hems of their trousers. Miguel felt the dryness in his mouth. He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck and his skin felt like paper.
'Hello,' shouted the minister as they approached. 'We have broken down. Can you help?'
The women stood up, one leaning heavily on a stick, the other still cradling a palm-full of stones. Close up, they did not look like Miguel imagined archaeologists to look. They looked like his mother's friends, like the women who gossip in the market.
'What do you need?' the woman with the stick asked. The minister turned to Miguel. She had spoken in the old dialect and he had not understood. Miguel said it was their fan-belt that had snapped and the woman nodded and walked to the truck.
The minister said hello to the other woman. She smiled shyly. 'What have you there?' he asked. She held out her hand. She was dressed in work clothes: jeans, boots, and a chequered shirt. She had glasses with saucer sized lenses and a soft sun-hat which she had taken off and stuffed into her back pocket.
'May I,' the minister said, gesturing as if to take one of the items in her hand. The woman nodded.
He picked up the largest of the items and saw it was not a stone at all. It was a smooth sided fragment of a curved object, jagged where it had been broken. Despite the aged dirt-yellow colour he recognised it. 'These are bones,' he shouted to Miguel. 'They are looking for bones.'
'Archaeologist?' he asked. The woman shook her head.
She said the old word for mother.
'Who are these women?' the minister asked.
At the truck the other woman had opened the tool-box for Miguel. It was big and well stocked, with tools in a tray on top and spares beneath. Spark plugs, washers, lengths of hose, and a fan belt.
'Ask them who they are.'
The woman with the stick spoke and Miguel translated. 'They are looking for remains,' he said. 'Men killed in the revolution were buried here.'
The minister gave the fragment of bone back to the woman with the glasses and looked about him. The desert was bare rock and dust, unchanging for miles.
'Only pieces!' he said. 'Ask them why they find only pieces?'
The woman with the stick talked again.
'The army moved them,' Miguel translated. 'They came with diggers and dug them up. Sometimes they left behind the feet and the heads.'
The woman pantomimed a digger's scoop with her hands.
'They fell back.'
The woman kept talking.
'They do not know where the rest of the bodies were taken. She says they might have been dumped at sea or taken to another part of the desert. She says they find what they can and a laboratory identifies them from the DNA.'
The woman stopped speaking.
'I think they are a bit crazy minister. They have been in the sun too long.'
'Why do they keep looking?' the minister asked. 'After all these years.'
'They are crazy,' Miguel said.
The woman with the glasses carefully placed her handful of bones on the ground and fished an object from her shirt pocket. It was wrapped in fabric and she unwound it and held it out to the minister. A tiny thing in a clean white bed. It looked like a scrap of old leather, dark and brown, and it took the minister a moment to identify it as a toe. There was a scrap of skin attached that had hardened and curled back, a stripe of lighter colour beneath where the strap of a sandal would have been.
'My son,' said the woman folding the fabric up again. 'I keep him next to my heart.'
Miguel translated though there was no need.
'They know where the rest of him is,' she said. 'But they will not tell. They will not tell.'
'Come,' said Miguel brandishing the fan-belt, and he started walking up the hill toward the road. 'They are foolish women, minister. The revolution was a long time ago. They should live their lives instead of raking over the past. They will see their sons in heaven.'
In the dry air, the air so clear it drew scientists from across the globe to use the observatory, and that could desiccate human remains like saltfish, any tears would evaporate as fast as they were shed.
The man finds the file he is looking for and opens it. In it is a single piece of paper. A typewritten order with a signature below. The signature is clear, legible. The man looks at it for a minute then returns it and wearily lifts the box back up onto the shelf. Behind his moustache, turned down into a permanent disappointed curve, his real expression is obscured.